About an hour in, Godzilla finally gets out of the water and roars for the camera. He faces down a winged kaiju at an airport, what's suggested to be an ancient predator of his kind. The military is down; the humans are helpless. Flames swell and it's clear only Godzilla can stop this.
The movie immediately cuts to the hero's living room, where his son watches a news channel showing Godzilla and the winged kaiju throwing each other around for a few seconds. The kid yells, "Mommy, Mommy, dinosaurs!"
The guy sitting behind me snorted. I laughed. The rest of the room was awkwardly quiet, especially as the movie then depicted the monsters going separate ways. We missed the fight, we missed what made them split up, and we immediately go back to humans talking.
I don't feel this is much of a spoiler because it's a trick the movie pulls at least five more times. It's as though they didn't have the budget to make a giant monster movie and so went to every length to avoid it, giving you glimpses of struggle from the corner of the screen, or multiple times, shrunken visions on TV sets. During its climactic battle, the movie cannot wait to cut away from the giants in favor of Navy men trying to get into the city, steal a nuclear warhead, and then escape the city.
Godzilla gets tackled? Cut to the humans.
Godzilla slams a kaiju through a skyscraper? Cut to the humans.
I was rooting for them to die so that we could stop checking in on them.
And we cut to the wrong humans. Prominently featured in trailers and commercials, Bryan Cranston and Ken Watanabe are shouldered out of the way for Aaron Taylor-Johnson, an ordnance expert and Cranston's character's son. He is not just a cipher, but an uncharismatic one who constantly requires excuses to keep around. He's at one set-piece because of his dad, then another on his way to the airport, and so-on. While the humans tend to suck in Godzilla movies, it's not often you get two great actors who are already in it and then shunted.
So the movie becomes more frustrating than anything. Its new kaiju are interesting, and up to something crazy, and pose different threats to Godzilla. One is winged and nimble, where the other is more of a hulk. There's an excitement to seeing a throwdown, and so the movie did the build-up well enough, if it took far too long to get there. It's no Jurassic Park in its build, but it's adequate. The problem becomes that it's nowhere near Jurassic Park's league when it finally lets us see the creatures. The T-Rex is supposed to show up and dominate the scene, not be interspersed with talking head sequences with mission command, reporters and nurses, all of whom exist to tell you the thing you're not seeing is scary and important. That's when the movie starts getting goofy.
For a movie that was billed as intense, it wobbles between drab and cheesy. At one point Watanabe gives a nuke-happy admiral his father's watch – it stopped the day he died in Hiroshima. Get it? But shortly thereafter, Godzilla saves a school bus. I'm still not sure if he did it on purpose; it was goofy enough that I laughed. The movie is occasionally dumb, but not campy like the Godzilla franchise you expect.
We get multiple shots of casualties lying around like human set design, and also multiple sight-gags. This movie absolutely loves people being unaware something enormous is right next to them, including the hero's wife not hearing an airplane crashing until it explodes behind her, and a specialist team checking a waste dump and missing that a 500-foot monster was eating there. It never reconciles its tone, right to the end, when it flashes a headline that literally dropped my jaw.
I could complain about its ill-fitted soundtrack and the number of Asians it enjoys killing, but why bother? After more than twenty films, and one failed American film to study, it managed to be the Godzilla movie that didn't know it was supposed to be about Godzilla. The great hope is that we get that rumored Pacific Rim/Godzilla crossover, and thus get this beast into Guillermo Del Toro's hands. Somebody else, please take a shot.